MIAMI – Aircraft names are not just a combination of letters and numbers randomly assigned. There is a well-thought-out system behind them, and every manufacturer has a code for its aircraft names.

Let’s take a deep dive into the origins of the aircraft naming conventions from some of the most important aircraft manufacturers in the world.

Airbus F-WWCF Airbus A350-900. (Carbon Livery). Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Airbus


The Airbus 300 was the company’s first aircraft. The name was formed using a simple rule: the first letter “A” represents the corporate name Airbus, and 300 represents the aircraft’s capacity.

Following that, Airbus opted to stick with the concept and began naming aircraft with multiples of ten — A310, A320, A330, A340, A350, and A380.

So why did Airbus forego the A360 and A370? The A380 was designed as Airbus’ largest airplane, and the corporation preserved the idea of reserving numbers between the A350 and the A380 in case it ever wanted to go back and develop smaller aircraft that could fit between the A350 and the A380.

As for the A318 and A319, the proximity of the numbers to 320 indicates that these aircraft were developed by altering the A320.

Now, the full version of an Airbus aircraft name includes three more numerals, such as the Airbus A320-231. These last three digits indicate that the aircraft is from the A320 family, and the first digit in the supplementary number indicates that it is from the Airbus A320-200 series, making it the type’s second version. The last two digits after the model go for the engine type, such as the A320-231 and the A320-216.

The NEO suffix refers to the new, more efficient aircraft family, much like the MAX refers to a new series of the Boeing 737 aircraft. This means that the Airbus A321-200 is from the NEO family, and it would be incorrect to clump both the family term, version number, and engine type.

Therefore, when referring to a specific variant, the aircraft should be called the A321-200, for example; when referring to the family, the same aircraft can be referred to as the A321neo.

Boeing 737 MAX 10 at Renton readying for first take-off. Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Boeing


The 7X7 method is used to name the majority of Boeing aircraft. It signifies that the names begin and conclude with the number 7. Boeing 707 was the first Boeing aircraft to be named after the 7X7 pattern.

Boeing began as a military aircraft manufacturer, but after WWII, the corporation opted to expand into the civilian aviation industry. This decision was followed by a diversification policy, and each product category was assigned a number: 300s and 400s remained for aircraft, 500s for turbine engines, 600s for rockets and missiles, and 700s for jet transport aircraft.

Boeing aircraft names, like Airbus’, are longer than three digits and look like 7X7-ABC (e.g., Boeing 747-400), where ABC can be any three-digit number. Boeing’s Customer Code is represented by this number. A 747-121, for example, is a 747-100 sold to Pan Am. Boeing later decided to drop the customer code once the 747-8, the 737 MAX, and the 787 were introduced.

Since it first flew in the late 1960s, the Boeing 737 has gone through several revisions – the Classic Series, the Next Generation Series, and now the MAX Series, a marketing term created for the family — all 737s. So while the MAX moniker is thrown around in the media, forgoing the marketing, the type’s variants should be referred to as the Boeing 737-8/9/10.

But who came up with the moniker “737”, and who devised the naming scheme for all Boeing aircraft: a 7 followed by a single-digit number followed by a 7?

When Boeing switched from propeller to jet airliners in the late 1950s, it restarted its numbering with the 707. It is a number that many aerospace engineers are familiar with: 7, 0, and 7 are the first three digits in both the sine and cosine of 45 degrees.

Swept wings, which angle toward the back of a plane’s fuselage rather than sticking out at a 90-degree angle, were novel at the time. According to Boeing lore, the name 707 was derived from the angle of the plane’s wings. If true, it would be a suitable story, though to be exact, the 707’s wing sweep was only 35 degrees, not 45.

The numbers issued to commercial aircraft began in the 700s, so the number could have been the name of the first jet, but it just didn’t sound right to the marketing team. “Seven-oh-seven” seemed more enticing, with a ring similar to the “double-oh-seven” British spy code name at the time so famous on the big screen. And so, the new naming convention was to be passed down through the generations.

Also worth noting is the Boeing 2707, which was going to be the company’s supersonic model.

BOEING N789EX BOEING 787-9 DREAMLINER. Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Before releasing an airplane, Boeing is circumspect about its name. The 787 began as the 7E7, with the ‘E’ standing for efficiency, but the 8 felt predestined. In China, the number eight is considered lucky. Remember that the Beijing Summer Olympics started at 8 p.m. on August 8, 2008. Perhaps Boeing thought that it comes to selling to the burgeoning Chinese market, a jet with an 8 in the name couldn’t hurt.

Interestingly, the 787 was also known by another name. Boeing officials were ready to call it the ‘Global Cruiser’ until they decided to let the world vote on a name. A brief list of options was compiled and circulated widely. Over 500,000 people from 160 different countries voted. When the votes were counted, ‘Dreamliner’ had won by a margin of barely 2,500 votes.

As for the ER and LR, the Extended and Long Range suffixes are marketing terms used by Boeing to describe different configurations to 777-200 and -300 aircraft. And let’s not forget the 777X, where the X, one would argue, stands for Experimental or Extra, though the type’s actual model name is the 777-9. The biggest difference between the 777X and the 777ER is the wingspan, where the 777X’s wingspan is 15% bigger than that of the 777-300ER.

Will the name for the next Boeing plane be the 797, and what comes after that? What about the 807 or the 7-10-7? Boeing will cross this bridge when the time comes with the usual fanfare.

Embraer PR-ZIQ Embraer 190-400STD (Profit Hunter Livery). Photo: Fabrizio Spicuglia/Airways

Embraer


A tribute, an ambition, a wish for someone’s good fortune or pleasure, a pleasant sound, or an affectionate remembrance. These are the most common causes for the names given to people, objects, and, why not, aircraft, says Embraer. Bandeirante, Brasilia, Xingu, Xavante, Ipanema, and Urupema are some of the Brazilian manufacturer’s aircraft names, none of which were chosen at random.

Brigadier Paulo Victor, the head of the Aeronautical Technical Center (CTA) at the time, renamed the twin-turboprop, originally known as the IPD-6504, Bandeirante. The moniker was adopted to honor Brazil’s explorers, the Bandeirantes, as well as national integration. In 1969, Embraer, which had just been formed, began serial production of the aircraft.

The Brasilia. Photo: Embraer

A 30-passenger, low-wing, pressurized, twin-engine turboprop aircraft built from the start to serve regional aviation. This is how the EMB 120, sometimes known as the Brasilia, came to be. It is one of the true descendants of the Bandeirante, which flew for the first time in July 1983.

The name is a clear allusion to Brazil’s capital city, and the intention was to use a well-known name while also emphasizing the aircraft’s provenance. The Bandeirante and the Brasilia would become the basis for the evolution in the ERJ and subsequently the E-jets.

Embraer’s new aircraft, notably commercial, were no longer given such Brazilian names as time passed. “Following a global and market trend, commercial aircraft manufacturers no longer provided private names to their aircraft and began working with the concept of ‘families’ or ‘generations’ of aircraft,” stated Duane Muradas, Embraer product development engineer. This is what happened with the EMB/ERJ-145 family and the E-Jets, for example.

American Eagle (Envoy Air) N299JJ Embraer E175. Photo: Sean Brink/Airways

There is no such thing as an ERJ-175 or E-175, where ERJ stands for Embraer Regional Jet, because the type certificate refers to the 170 as the ERJ-170-100 and the 175 as the ERJ-170-200. The 190 is an ERJ-190-100, whereas the 195 is an ERJ-190-200. ERJ-175 and -195 are merely marketing names with no official status. Related footnotes from the FAA type certificate data sheets for the 170 and 190 are as follows:

In Embraer marketing literature, the Models ERJ 170-100 xx and ERJ 170-200 xx are frequently referred to as the “Embraer 170 xx” and “Embraer 175 xx,” respectively, with the appropriate model (LR, STD, or long-range and standard) substituted for the “xx”. These names are solely for marketing purposes and are not included in the official model designations.

The exceptions to this rule are the ERJ 190-100 IGW and ERJ 190-200 IGW models, which have been marketed as the Embraer 190 AR and Embraer 195 AR, respectively. The ERJ 190-100 ECJ type is frequently referred to as “Lineage1000” in Embraer promotional brochures.

Bombardier C-GWYD Bombardier CS100. Photo: Misael Ocasio Hernandez/Airways

Bombardier


So far, we have seen how manufacturers’ names, make, and model numbers are used to identify both commercial and general aviation aircraft (which are used for private and recreational flights). The Bombardier CRJ-900, produced by Bombardier Aerospace in Canada, is another example.

The abbreviation CRJ refers to the kind of aircraft (Canadair Regional Jet), and the number 900 refers to the model. The same pattern may be applied to practically all civilian aircraft, but builders have been known to skip numbers and take liberal liberties with the design.

BD stands for Bombardier, and while the Bombardier CSeries was meant to be a game-changing aircraft, the program was taken over by Airbus renaming the aircraft as the Airbus A220. Bombardier pulled out of the venture entirely, leaving it to Airbus.

A Comac ARJ21-700 in flight at the 2010 Zhuhai Airshow. Photo: By Shimin Gu – https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/6998514, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17079307

COMAC


The first jet marketed by Chinese manufacturer COMAC was the ARJ21, where ARJ stands for Advanced Regional Jet, developed by China Aviation Industry Corporation I.

The type was followed by the C919, which made its maiden flight in 2017, attracting interest from Chinese airlines. The C919, which can seat up to 168 passengers, is meant to compete in the market for single-aisle jets.

For all models sold beginning with the Comac C919, COMAC’s naming system for commercial airliners has taken the form of 9X9, with the C standing for Commercial.

Irkut Corporation 73053 Irkut MC-21-300. Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Irkut


“Мaгистральный Самолёт 21 века” Magistral’nyj Samoljot 21 veka translates as “mainline aircraft of the twenty-first century” in Russian. This is the reason the MC-21 was marketed as such in the West, although the aircraft’s original Russian model is transliterated as MS-21. MC-21 is not to be confused with Mitsubishi MC-21, the civilian model of Mitsubishi Ki-21.

In 2013, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin stated that it will be known as the Yak-242 if it enters serial production, after the name of a similar-sized aircraft proposed in the 1990s.

In 2014, Oleg Demchenko, the president of Irkut at the time, favored the Yak-242 designation, believing it better reflected the aircraft’s design bureau. However, he has also said that any of these renaming decisions would be made after the aircraft’s first flight and certification work.

BOOM’s XB-1 and Overture. Image: BOOM Supersonic

BOOM


By now, it should be simpler for the reader to interpret the naming code of Boom Supersonic’s XB-1, one of the first of a new breed of supersonic aircraft to fly the skies in the coming decade. X stands for Experimental, B stands for Boom, and 1 stands for First. During the naming process, BOOM says it gratefully acknowledged Chuck Yeager’s contributions in X-1.

As for its Overture model, BOOM is of course referring to the actual meaning of the word: an introduction to something more substantial.

What’s in an aircraft name? More than meets the eye. It all depends if you’re referring to the family or series, the variant, or the rage. What is your favorite aircraft model? What are your thoughts on new aircraft names on the horizon? Be sure to leave your comments below or in our SM channels.


Featured image: BOEING N779XX BOEING 777-9. Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways. Article sources: Airbus, Boeing, COMAC, Embraer, Irkut, aviationvoice.com, University of Houston, FAA.